The foster home where David Rishel spent a year and a half as a teenager was the first stable home he’d ever known. Now, the 38-year-old gay father of two considers himself a success story – and never misses an opportunity to encourage parents navigating the foster care system.
"Someone took time to get me in foster care – which is probably the only reason I’m alive.”
David remembers his childhood home as violent; drugs were everywhere. It was the seventies, and his parents loved to party. He has no memories of his father, who left the family when David was six weeks old. His mother remarried five years later. David’s new stepfather provided, but the marriage was rocky from the start, and violence and drugs continued to be a household staple.
“No matter how fancy of a neighborhood we lived in or how fancy a car they were driving…none of that really mattered. Our home life was a disaster,” says David. “Our smiles at church on Sunday were as fake as you can get.”
When his parents finally divorced, David was thirteen and had two younger half-siblings.
David’s mother moved with the children back to her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. David describes the south side neighborhood where they lived as “pretty much rated, even then, one of the worst places to live in the nation crime-wise. Heavy mafia influence, a lot of drugs. So, it was a rough, rough place.”
While his mother partied, David learned to cook and care for himself and his siblings. “I kind of took the role of mother or father.”
The kids didn’t have decent clothes, and their hair was ratty. People started to notice. The Children’s Service Board began coming by their house.
David felt like his main priority in life was survival – just survival.
“I remember taking dollar food stamps, when food stamps used to be paper, out of my mother’s purse,” David says. “I would go to the grocery store across the street and buy a pack of gum or a candy bar or whatever, which would be my lunch.”
Because his house was out of school bus jurisdiction, he would use the remaining fifty cents to ride the city bus to school.
“I was an angry 13-year-old boy – I didn’t see too many options for life to get better, especially by the example of the adults around me.”
David attempted suicide that year. He swallowed a bottle-full of his mother’s Valium pills. “I remember being dragged out of the bathtub by somebody – one of my mom’s various boyfriends – into an ambulance and taken to a hospital,” he recalls.
David was admitted into a 30-day treatment facility. When his treatment concluded, he begged to stay longer. He had caught a glimpse of how safe and stable life could be – and couldn’t imagine going home.
But David had attracted the notice of the Children’s Service Board and, a short time later, was placed into foster care. When his mother went on a partying binge and left his two siblings home alone with no electricity, they were also removed from the home and sent to live with their father.
Foster care changed David’s life.
“They treated me as their own son,” he says. “The family had many foster kids coming in and out of their home, and they certainly weren’t living in abundance, but every child was cared for.”
David remembers how guilty he had always felt about school shopping with his mother. “There was always an issue about money. No matter how much they made or what they did, I knew she’d rather be spending it on drugs.”
School shopping with his foster parents, by contrast, he felt genuinely cared for. “It’s not like they were taking me to Macy’s and saying, ‘Pick out whatever you want.’ But I had clothes, and I had underwear that fit me, which was the first time in years.”
But after 18 months, David moved in with his stepfather, who would eventually legally adopt him.
The sudden realization that he wouldn’t be with his new family forever devastated him. “I thought that I was completely saved from the world and it only lasted 18 months.” But he had started on the path to a new life – one that was not merely about survival.
Today, looking back, he marvels at how far he’s come. “I think the moral of the story is that I survived. I survived. I’m in love. I’m gainfully employed. I’m educating myself. I survived. And I am alive to tell people that you can survive.”
Asked what advice he would give to foster parents based on his experience…
David always begins with: keep going. His story is testimony to the impact of a stable home, no matter how temporary.
From the perspective of children like David, foster care is “the lighthouse at the end of an island.”
He stresses the importance of honesty. When he reads about the joy foster children bring to parents longing to have children of their own, he worries: “a part that is forgotten is…explain[ing] to the child that it might not be forever.”
A candid conversation, he says, can help children – especially older children – navigate the situation. “Tell them: ‘We love you right now. We’re so happy you’re here. We don’t know where you’re going to go. But we’re going to love you so much. We’re going to provide for you.’”
He also encourages parents to be sensitive to how even well-intentioned gestures can set kids up for disappointment. “When you have a foster child who has nothing and you start buying them clothing and Easter baskets and Christmas presents…try to remember that some of them aren’t used to having all that and some of them…are not going to have that stuff forever.”
Asked what he’s learned about parenting from his experiences…
“It doesn’t take money to love a child,” he says.
For David, the essence of parenthood is in the simple moments: “cuddling, laying around, watching a movie…taking a walk down the beach, waking them up early to watch the sunrise…It’s the little things of showing them how much this world has to offer.”
“I try to reiterate to my children that they’re loved.”
And he teaches them to love and accept those around them, no matter the circumstances.
“Looking at [my children and me], you would think we’d never had a problem in the world. But the truth is, everyone does.”